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Jan. 17, 2022

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Renewal on the waterfronts

Vancouver, Washougal, Ridgefield are either in the process of or planning redevelopment projects

By , Columbian Small Cities Reporter
15 Photos
Work is in progress on the waterfront development project in Vancouver.
Work is in progress on the waterfront development project in Vancouver. Photo Gallery

A historic transformation is starting to unfold this summer along the banks of the Columbia River in Clark County.

Industrial land that for decades remained off-limits to public access is on the verge of a long-awaited rebirth in Vancouver and Washougal as the cities begin to transform their waterfront property. Meanwhile, efforts to redevelop what was once one of the most contaminated industrial sites in Washington along Ridgefield’s Lake River — a tributary of the Columbia — are also picking up steam.

After waiting out the pitfalls of the Great Recession, construction is finally well underway this summer on the 32-acre waterfront site in Vancouver. With more space to develop, the demand is finally there to build in Vancouver, said Barry Cain, the president of Tualatin, Ore.-based Gramor Development, which is leading the project.

“It’s amazing how pent-up the demand is here,” he said. “Everything that’s happened in Portland over the last 15 years — all that housing that’s happened in the Pearl District, all that housing that’s happened on the south waterfront — a good percentage of that wants to happen in Vancouver, but it hasn’t been able to because there wasn’t a place in an urban area that anybody wanted to be.”


A group of investors under the name Columbia Waterfront LLC purchased the former Boise Cascade property in Vancouver in 2008, kicking off a long-term visioning process for the waterfront. When they bought the land, Cain said, it was “uglier than sin.

Vancouver seeks inspiration from efforts in Wenatchee, Astoria, Ore.

In recent years, projects along other parts of the Columbia River have brought in big bucks for Wenatchee and Astoria, Ore. In Vancouver, planners have looked to such examples for guidance on their own waterfront project.

When Wenatchee went through an economic downturn in the late 1990s, a couple of major manufacturers left the city, said Allison Williams, the city's director of executive services. Concerned about the long-term impacts of losing those employers, city leaders began planning to redevelop Wenatchee's waterfront.

In the years since, the city has adorned its waterfront with new condos, a park and trail system, and the 5,500-seat Town Toyota Center, the home of the Wenatchee Wild NAHL hockey team.

"It's changed the complexion of our city. We now are a destination," said Williams, who served as the lead planner on the redevelopment effort. "Our visitor numbers are way up."

Since 2010, Wenatchee has seen a $20.9 million boost in assessed property value and a $23.4 million increase in gross retail sales. City leaders tie the trend to the rejuvenation of Wenatchee's waterfront, and big increases are projected for the city's lodging tax revenue after the completion of a new hotel next year.

Astoria's waterfront tells a similar story. Looking to boost the local economy after the decline of the timber industry in the 1990s, developers began building an inviting new waterfront trail called the Astoria Riverwalk.

Today, the Riverwalk is lined with restaurants, museums, breweries and even a trolley dating back to 1913. A number of historic buildings along the trail have been restored within the last five years, helping Astoria become the popular weekend getaway it is today, said Kevin Cronin, the city's community development director.

"The tourist economy in Astoria has really just boomed," Cronin said. "The Riverwalk is a funnel for people to frequent the businesses along the waterfront."

-- Justin Runquist

Now, developers and planners involved in the $1.3 billion private-public re-invention of Vancouver’s waterfront say it will be the focal point of a boon unlike any other for the city’s economy. When it’s finished, the site will boast a new hotel, high-rise condos and apartments, restaurants and a 7-acre park with a landmark pier extending into the river.

In Vancouver, city leaders anticipate that the first five-block phase of the project alone will raise some $33 million in tax revenue over the next two decades. Cain believes Vancouver will offer the most attractive waterfront property in the Portland-Vancouver metro area, and he contends that rents and other housing costs will be cheaper than those on the south side of the river.

“It’s south-facing, it’s attached to the fourth largest city in Washington, it’s located at the very entrance to Washington state,” Cain told a group of about two dozen before leading a tour of the property earlier this month. “There’s nothing like it in the Portland area. This park is going to be beautiful, and it is really first-rate. In Clark County, this will be the one place that everybody will go to.”

In the early 1900s, the Vancouver waterfront was home to the G.M. Standifer Construction Corp., whose two shipyards made up the largest employer in Vancouver until the company closed in 1921. About 20 years later, a paper mill arose on the property, and though it changed hands several times, the mill stayed in operation until 1996, when its last operator, Boise Cascade, closed up shop.

After a lengthy effort to spruce up downtown Vancouver over the past 15 years, attention has focused on the waterfront west of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

In the next few weeks, crews will finish placing new traffic signals and streetlights along freshly paved streets and sidewalks on the site. This fall, the first $220 million stage of construction on the buildings and parking spaces is scheduled to begin.

Estimates have placed the cost of the new park at about $17 million. Almost all the money needed for that portion has been raised; the city just received a $1 million grant from the Washington state Recreation and Conservation Office to help cover the cost. Construction will begin in October, and the park is expected to open in 2017.

Crews will also begin erecting new buildings on the site in the first quarter of 2016, Cain said. He expects the first building to open by the spring of 2017, and the property should finally be built out in the next 10 years.

Construction began in January on the new Columbia Way, the main thoroughfare through the property, and Cain expects it to wrap up next month.

But while development is quickly moving along, not everyone is convinced the site will appeal to people looking for a lower cost of living on the north side of the Columbia River. Robert Galante, a retired Oregon-based developer consulting with Cain on the project, said Cain faces some challenges with that marketing strategy.

He doubts housing costs on the waterfront will be any cheaper in Vancouver than they are on the south side of the river, as Cain suggests.

“When you go to rent something here or buy something here, it’s going to cost you the same or more as it does in Portland,” Galante said.

Galante wouldn’t recommend the project for just any developer, but he has faith that Cain will manage to pull it off.

“So, Barry should not be doing this project, because the current market in Vancouver won’t support that,” Galante said. “But he’s got staying power. He’s got vision.”

If the demand isn’t there yet, it soon will be, said Elie Kassab, the president and chief executive officer of Vancouver-based commercial real estate firm Prestige Development.

“If it’s phased, yes, the demand is there,” Kassab said. “As the city grows and as people move here, and as the students that graduate from high school and college come back, there’s going to be a need.”

Even if housing costs end up being more expensive on the north side of the river, people will pay to the live at the waterfront, he said. Kassab also sees a growing demand in the coming years for businesses to move to the waterfront.

“One of the huge advantages that I think a lot of us don’t talk about is that Washington does not have personal or corporate state income tax,” he said. “And as those units get built, I think we will see companies bring their headquarters to Vancouver.”


Reshaping Washougal’s riverfront property has been in the works for several years, and construction is finally getting underway this summer. Sitting only 1.5 miles from downtown and just east of the marina, developers envision the land becoming a popular hangout for east county residents.

The 40-acre property served as an industrial site for decades until the Hambleton Lumber Co. closed in 2010. The place has been empty and quiet ever since, as the Port of Camas-Washougal — which owns about 67 percent of the property — has worked to clean up the land before beginning to bring a new park and trail system to life.

After five years of planning, work is set to start in mid-August on a new 5.73-acre park — aptly named the Washougal Waterfront Park — with a 0.7-mile trail at the former mill site. Vancouver-based commercial real estate developer Killian Pacific, which owns the remaining third of the property, plans to develop new commercial space right next to the park, as well.

“This was still a mill when we were talking about it,” said David Ripp, the port’s executive director. “Prime waterfront property, where this is at, is not for industrial development. People want to be able to touch, see and feel the Columbia River.”

On Tuesday night, the port signed a $2.6 million contract with Battle Ground-based Tapani Inc. to begin building the park and trail, Ripp said.

Along the way, the greatest challenge for the port has been getting enough funding for the project, he said. But the tide turned when the port received a $1.7 million grant this summer from the state Recreation and Conservation Office to help cover the cost of the project. The grant ended up providing $500,000 more than Ripp anticipated.

Construction on that portion should wrap up by next spring or early summer. As for how long the commercial space will take to fill out, Ripp isn’t sure, but the demand has grown at the port’s other commercial properties, he said.

“I think it’s going to match and tie in really well with the downtown,” he said. “We want a reason for people to come down here, and I think it’s going to do that.”

As the property lies just beyond the eastern edge of Camas city limits, it will also play a large role in that community, City Administrator Pete Capell said.

“As the community developed, its first industries located along the waterfront for transportation purposes,” Capell said. “Then, as the sites consume their useful life, they get redeveloped for recreation, housing and commercial space. That’s happening all over the region.”


Commercial development along Lake River in Clark County’s fastest-growing city is at least several years away, but real signs of progress have already started to emerge this summer at the Port of Ridgefield’s property.

Until 1993, the 41-acre parcel next to the port’s office was home to Pacific Wood Treating, a company that pressure-treated telephone poles and railroad ties with chemical agents. That year, the business declared bankruptcy, shut down and left the port to deal with one of the largest environmental cleanup projects in the state.

Today, the cleanup effort has largely concluded for the site, known as Millers’ Landing. The name is an homage to the long industrial history of the property, where many millworkers earned a living for more than a century.

The port envisions the land blossoming into a mixed commercial-residential extension of its downtown area.

But before any businesses begin to take root there, road access will need to be improved, said Brent Grening, the port’s chief executive officer.

“Until you really have safe, uninterrupted access, it’s going to be hard for a developer to want to come down here, knowing that you’re going to be competing with trains and the like,” Grening said. “It may take some time for this property to really turn on.”

This summer, the port secured a $7.8 million cut from the state transportation package, moving the port closer to completing construction on a new railroad overpass between downtown and Millers’ Landing. Grening expects construction to start next year and finish by 2017.


For maps showing the location of the waterfront projects, hover your mouse over the photo above the story and click on the directional arrow on the right to move through the slider.

Last year, the port worked with the Department of Ecology on dredging Carty Lake and refilling the surrounding area with new plants. Crews also recently finished laying a paved trail around the lake that will eventually become a new entry point to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

“That is really the end of the remediation process,” Grening said. “We’ll be monitoring it, but as far as physical work, the property is pretty well done.”

Grening doesn’t see Clark County’s three major waterfront redevelopment projects cutting too deep into each other’s market.

“We see them as symbiotic,” he said. “What you can do on the Vancouver waterfront is very different than what’s going to really work here. It’s just a different scale, so I don’t think they compete.”

And he takes the fact that the projects are all moving forward at once as a sign of economic recovery, Grening said.

“I can tell you the market is hot,” Grening said. “Today, there’s an urgency to the conversations about development.”

Columbian Small Cities Reporter